Meditation: Getting Started

So you want to start practicing meditation, but need to know the very basics—like how to sit. Mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn offers helpful tips for beginners from his new book.

The way to undertake the practice is as an experiment. I suggest that you give yourself at least six months to practice every day, whether you like it or not, whether you feel like it or not. While six months may sound extreme, actually it is being offered as a way for you to reconnect with and nurture the genius elements of your own being, all too easily abandoned in the pull of the seeming urgency of personal commitments, responsibilities, and unexamined lifestyle habits.

Here are a few pointers to get you started and suggestions for how to work with some of the common challenges to beginning a meditation practice:

1. Posture

The carriage of your body during formal practice is important. It helps if you adopt a posture that embodies wakefulness, even or especially if you feel sleepy. That probably means not practicing lying down, although lying down can be a wonderful way to cultivate mindfulness and wakefulness as we do in various body scans and lying-down meditations. If you set your intention at the beginning of a period of practice to “fall awake” instead of “falling asleep,” then it is fine to experiment with practicing lying down.

Aside from the fact that you can also meditate formally when standing still or while walking, a posture that embodies wakefulness usually suggests sitting, and sitting in such a way that the back is straight but relaxed, with the shoulders and arms hanging off the rib cage, the head erect, and the chin slightly tucked. You can sit either on a straight-backed chair or on a cushion on the floor. As best you can, sit in a posture that naturally and easily embodies dignity and presence for you. 

If you choose a chair, try to sit with your feet uncrossed and flat on the floor, and if possible (and it may not always be possible) with your back away from the back of the chair so your posture is self-supporting, with the spine self-elevating out of the pelvis. 

If you choose a cushion on the floor, you will need padding for your knees. A zabuton (a cushioned mat) underneath a zafu (round meditation cushion) is one good solution. If you choose to sit on a zafu, choose one with a height that works for your body. The idea is to sit on the forward third of the cushion, with the pelvis tilted slightly down, allowing the natural lordotic curve in the lower back to move in both a forward and an upward direction. Your knees may or may not touch the floor (or rug or zabuton), depending on how flexible your hips are. For comfort, you may want to support your knees with extra cushioning if they do not rest easy on the surface below you. 

You can do various things with your legs. They can be folded into what is called the Burmese posture, with one lower leg draped in front of the other. That is the easiest, and therefore the posture that is least likely to cause increasingly unpleasant sensations with longer sitting times. 

You can also do various things with your hands. I generally keep mine folded in my lap, with the fingers of the left hand lying on top of the fingers of the right hand, and the thumbs either lying one (left) on top of the other (right) or with the thumb tips touching. The latter forms what is called the 140 “cosmic mudra,” in the shape of an oval above the fingers. There are also many other mudras that you can try out, like keeping your hands on your knees, facing either up or down.

Remember that it is not so much the position of the hands that is important, but your awareness of the feeling of the hands in any position. That way your hands, like your legs and your back, will begin illuminating for you the landscape of your own body and the various embodied sensory qualities associated with the myriad of ways the body can position itself, both in formal meditation and in daily life. (Continued after image below.)

Click here for more information about Mindfulness for Beginners.

2. What to Do with Your Eyes

You can be aware with your eyes closed, and you can be aware with your eyes open. Therefore, you can meditate either with your eyes open or closed. Both have unique virtues, so you might want to experiment with both.

If you sit with your eyes open, it is good to let your gaze fall unfocused on the floor three or four feet out from you or on a wall if you are sitting facing a wall, as they do in some Zen traditions. Let the gaze be still and relaxed. It is not about staring at anything but simply an invitation to experience the chosen object of attention moment by moment, whatever it is, and resting in awareness with the eyes open.

3. Sleepiness

Obviously, if you are sleepy it is best to sit with your eyes open. But it is even better to find a time of day to practice when you are fairly awake. That is one good reason to practice early in the morning, after a good night’s sleep. You can also splash cold water on your face before practicing if you feel sleepy—or even take an invigorating cold shower. Since being awake is important to you or you wouldn’t have made it this far in the book and the practice, it makes sense to set up the conditions as best you can to be fully present.

Obviously, we have almost no control over some conditions, like how much ambient sound there may be in your location. But again, what is most important is the quality of your attention and awareness, not whether the conditions are optimal. Still, at the beginning, it is very helpful if you can minimize sleepiness and, to the degree possible, disturbances in your outer environment. There will be plenty of distractions to work with inwardly and outwardly, no matter how much you regulate the external environment. 

4. Protecting This Time 

It is best if the time you choose for formal practice is one in which you will not be interrupted. Shut off your cell phone, pager, computer, and the Internet. Close the door of your room and make sure that others know not to interrupt you during this time. This is another good reason for practicing early in the morning, before others have expectations of you, when you can make a time that is devoted strictly to being, a time for nurturing yourself through non-doing and the cultivation of mindfulness and heartfulness.


Excerpt from Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Sounds True, Jan. 2012). Click here for more information and to purchase the book and CD.